Monday, March 4, 2013

Traveling The Road Not Taken

Lonely in Ireland, since it was not home,
Strangeness made sense. The salt rebuff of speech,
Insisting so on difference, made me welcome:
Once that was recognised, we were in touch

Their draughty streets, end-on to hills, the faint
Archaic smell of dockland, like a stable,
The herring-hawker's cry, dwindling, went
To prove me separate, not unworkable.

Living in England has no such excuse:
These are my customs and establishments
It would be much more serious to refuse.
Here no elsewhere underwrites my existence.

Philip Larkin, The Importance of Elsewhere

Fifteen years ago, I had the good fortune to attend the Courtauld Impressionist exhibit at the AGO in Toronto. Wandering past the jaw-dropping wonders of the Monet's, Manet's, van Gogh's, and Degas', I came into a room devoted largely to Cezanne. Never my 'favorite' (whatever that might mean when we're talking art of this magnificence!) and already overwhelmed by what I'd seen, I was prepared to move relatively quickly through this space. But I couldn't. I found myself rooted to the spot and staring at the several views of Mont St. Victoire, a favored subject of this artist, with the growing awareness that I'd missed something very profound -- not that day, but some three decades earlier.

That road had led me to Aix en Provence in 1969 where I was somewhat serendipitously 'stuck' for three months while I waited for parts for my motorcycle. I wiled away the time in this beautiful Romanesque city in the south of France, sitting in cafes, making shallow acquaintance of the rich variety of peer-aged students associated with the various institutes and universities, picnicking in the foothills below that very Victoire -- and all the while, all but oblivious to this being the home of Paul Cezanne. That day at the AGO, I'd been granted a second entry -- and this time I noticed.

Our conversation began, as it so often does, with a question from my wife: did I think it was foolish for one her age to be investing so much time and energy into studying music at what amounted to a beginner's level? She'd just finished a weekly, online theory class with an extraordinary teacher, the 'classroom' populated by two other students, both bare adolescents (if that), one of whom has successfully completed her grade 10 music performance requirements, the penultimate in piano. The musical equivalent of entering university at age 12! Cowed by this young gal's musical prodigy and feeling somewhat overmatched, my wife was nonetheless a little confused by the degree to which this young and future performer struggled with the 'architecture' that musical theory comprises; at once, hugely proficient in the playing, but lacking in the (ultimately) essential foundations that allow for a full appreciation of the 'language'.

Our discussion broadened to the more validating view that, by revisiting her musical training -- begun in her adolescence and progressing to grade 6 at the time -- my wife too was taking a 'second go' at that road not taken the first time, at least in any real sense of the phrase, and throughly steeping herself in its richness. The purpose this time round was not 'getting there as fast as I can' -- but truly enjoying and experiencing the trip. And perhaps as importantly, noticing that the second opportunity had presented at all. 

This week's CBC Tapestry segment ( underscores the choices we have when confronted with the awareness that we've 'made a wrong turn' and perhaps opted for a path that, at present feels unfulfilling; or an opportunity missed. Mary Hynes' conversation with Adam Phillips is an examination of the ways in which we often pine for the 'the other fork', the one that would almost certainly have made us happy (or at least happier than we now feel). We mourn, we compare the 'what is' with the 'what could have been', we become obsessed with the 'gap', the shortfall -- and we embrace a recipe for continuing sadness, frustration, discontent.

Phillips' thesis, in part, addresses what we could be doing with that other road. He contends that our 'laments' are in fact useful material that might reflect aspirations, dreams, goals that can and perhaps should be explored in one's current life position -- not merely employed as 'war stories' or badges of 'victimhood', nostalgic reminiscences.   He also explores the (almost cliched by now) concept of 'being present' and how the 'other road' represents a 'stuck in the past' comparator that seductively insulates us from our present lives and inevitably is destined to be our own Glass Menagerie -- a lifelong longing for what might have been.

The Larkin poem that heads this piece, captures the essence of this concept. An Englishman in Ireland, he embraces 'the difference' and as a result feels welcomed, 'in touch' with his immediate, though 'foreign' setting. Returning home to the routine dissatisfactions of his own country, he shifts, conscious that dreaming of a better place, away from what is serves no purpose and that his task now is to fashion a co-existence with, an acceptance of this immediate reality. A very succinct statement of Kabat-Zinn's 'Wherever you go, there you are' concept!

A regular mindfulness practice affirms all of the foregoing aspects of that other road. It teaches us to notice, allow, and engage the present reality. It apprises us of the folly of being stuck in the past; or, alternately, fearing for or expectantly (and possibly, unrealistically) awaiting the future for what it might contain -- but probably won't -- be it angst or redemption.

A personal thought: the next time the other the other fork presents, take it, 'again, for the first time'. The analyst, Robert Johnson, in his brief but very compelling little volume, He, supports this suggestion in the most poetic of ways. Within the context of the Parsifal story in the Legend of King Arthur, Johnson describes this callow and foolish youth's stumbling into the Grail Castle, with the opportunity to fully engage all his hopes and dreams -- merely by asking the right question. In Johnson's words:

Every youth blunders his way into the Grail castle and has a vision that shapes much of the rest of his life. Like Parsifal, he is unprepared for this and does not have the possession to ask the question that would make the experience conscious and stable within him. . . (and) the next morning find(s) himself back in the ordinary world. . . No youth can cope with this opening of the Heavens and most set it aside, but do not forget it. . . A few, like Parsifal spend the rest of their lives searching for the Castle again. . . (while) one has to only "go down the road, turn left, and cross the drawbridge" (to quote the Fisher King).

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